Scott and I saw *Stonewall* at the New York City Opera on 6/28/19. It’s a new opera with music by Iain Bell and a libretto by Mark Campbell. This was the last performance of the world premiere run, and most extraordinary of all, our performance was on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion.
The opera was preceded by a short performance by the one and only Bob the Drag Queen! He was a scream. I’ll repeat (paraphrase) two jokes: “We’re lucky that bar was called the Stonewall, ‘cause some of these gay bars don’t have such nice names. Imagine if we were here celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rawhide Rebellion.”
My favorite joke: “I think when Beyoncé was in Destiny’s Child she thought it was a solo act. She kept wondering, 'Why these backup dancers keep coming up next to me and singing so LOUD.' ”
I’ve seen many brand new operas and this was a good one! The good moments were very good indeed - - it was often coursing with excitement, the overall arc was well planned, the writing for voices was impressive, the orchestration was colorful (conducted with a sure hand by Carolyn Kuan), and a lot of the music was just plain beautiful. It could stand to be tightened up, some elements didn’t quite land, but on the whole it was a success.
The opera started by characters telling their individual stories. Scott accurately classified this as “The *Chorus Line* model.” The first and most compelling story we heard was about Maggie, a butch lesbian demanding to be treated with respect. Mezzo Lisa Chavez played the role with zest and sang beautifully, she really brought out the emotion in the vocal lines.
The other most remarkable performance was by mezzo Liz Bouk as Sarah. Sarah is a transwoman celebrating her first birthday as a woman, a touching scene. The remarkable thing is that Liz himself is a transman. I believe I read in an email leading up to the performance that Bouk is the first trans person to play a trans character in an opera.
The culmination of the opera is of course the Stonewall rebellion. The scene opens with a large crowd of people dancing and carrying on while two Darlene Love songs, “Today’s the Day” and “Better Days Ahead,” are playing on the juke box. A couple of plains clothes cops come in - - the audience knows who they are, from a previous scene, but the characters don’t know. They suddenly turn aggressive, and this turning point was the high point of the score. The way they made the instant switch from the recorded song to the tension in the orchestra was a truly operatic moment.
The scene in the bar and then going out of the bar felt like it went on a little long at the time, the tension lagged a little bit - - but I think the composer wanted to honor the gravity of the situation and not turn it into a ten-minute highlights reel. I honor that. The staging by Leonard Foglia was extraordinary. It’s not easy managing a large group onstage and making sense of it, making it cohesive and having it further the drama and not just be a big mess.
The final scene was the morning after, with the characters coming together and figuring out how to move forward. The music was tender and lovely, gradually building into a big anthem. The audience was crazy for the show and we were glad to have seen it.